Mass Incarceration: Land of the Imprisoned

March 30, 2018 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , United States

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Amadeo De La Pava



America has a problem. Through antiquated and discriminatory policies, my country has become addicted to imprisoning its own citizens. In a nation where African-Americans make up thirteen percent of the population while simultaneously being forty percent of America’s incarcerated population, two awful policies remain more important to the criminal justice system than its own disenfranchised citizens. This systematic racism, a product of the war on drugs, the cash bail system, and other policies such as mandatory minimums has controlled the criminal justice system for too long.


The war on drugs was discriminatory from its conception in 1971, having been created solely to “disrupt their (African-American) communities” as per one of Nixon’s top aides John Ehrlichman. Fueled by hysteria over substances such as marijuana in the 1980s, the war on drugs [1] still thrives in a world where America incarcerates twenty-two percent of the world’s prisoners. [2]


Since its peak in 1990, the violent crime rate has dropped from (7.58) per (1000) people to (3.89) per (1000) people in 2016. Quietly over the same period of time, the incarceration rate has been disproportionately increasing drastically from about (0.5) million to (2.5) million people in prison over the same period of time. To make the root of the problem even more [3] obvious, those in prison for drug-related offenses made up one of five prisoners as of a 2018 study. [4]


The social ramifications of this “war” are more than evident, while white people in 1980 were about forty-five percent more likely than African-Americans to sell drugs according to an analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, African-Americans were twice as likely to be arrested for these drug offenses. An example of the issue this causes is the sociological fact that 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated at some point in their life—five times as likely as their white counterparts. [6]


It is clear upon analysis that this current drug policy is a failed one, having consumed tens of billions of dollars and destroying the lives of those most vulnerable in our society. One of the many alternatives to this destructive rhetoric is a more treatment-based approach to enforcement of drug laws. From a study in 2000 by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, rehabilitation cost on average ($4300) per client. Compared to ($20,000) per prisoner this is much more cost effective while creating a lower chance of repeat offenses because the main goal is to make it easier for drug offenders to assimilate back into society. [7] A model for this system can be found in New York where select places offer substance abuse treatment as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent felony and misdemeanor drug offenders. The effects of these new approaches can be seen in the incarceration rate’s most recent changes namely its first significant drop since 1971. [8]


The cash bail system has its own discriminatory aspects, mainly on financial grounds. The main argument against this system is that it makes it too difficult for indigent defendants to afford bail because a select amount of money could be very low to one person and too high to another. Whether a person waits on Rikers Island awaiting trial or in their own home should not be based on their economic status. A policy which disproportionately hurts indigent defendants in court proceedings is nothing short of an atrocity and the cash bail system must be drastically changed. This already harmful system also has had a negative effect on the incarceration rate through plea deals. According to a study which took place in Texas, those who cannot afford bail are more likely to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit in order to leave jail. This is [9] indicative of a larger issue with the criminal justice system—that minorities and those without a surplus of money are not treated equally under the law.


Another systematic failure with the cash bail system comes in discrepancies pertaining to how much bail is set during pre-trial proceedings. According to a two-year study on the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office found that Black defendants are more likely to be held in jail under higher bail and more likely to be offered plea deal with prison sentences than white people charged with the same crime. [10]


In a country where we are not all equal under the law, the criminal justice system should not be respected. We as a people cannot allow beautiful principles like the presumption of innocence and due process for all defendants in criminal prosecutions to be tainted by policies meant to incarcerate our neighbors for non-violent drug offenses. We have to fight for reform until drug addiction is considered the mental illness it is—not a crime constituting the destruction of a human life. The criminal justice system can be changed to one that helps those in need of rehabilitation not one that cages them.





Amadeo De La Pava

Amadeo De La Pava is a Law and Justice student at Bergen County Technical High School.




“Top Adviser to Richard Nixon Admitted That ‘War on Drugs’ Was Policy Tool to Go After Anti-War Protesters and ‘Black People’.” Drug Policy Alliance. Accessed March 27, 2018.



Kutateladze, Besiki L., and Nancy R. Andiloro. “Prosecution and Racial Justice in New York County – Technical Report.”



“Violent Crime.” FBI. August 25, 2017. Accessed March 27, 2018.



Wagner, Peter, Bernadette Rabuy, and Wendy Sawyer. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018 | Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed March 27, 2018.



Fairlie, Robert W. “Drug Dealing and Legitimate Self-Employment.” Journal of Labor Economics 20, no. 3 (2002): 538-37. doi:10.1086/339610.



Bonczar, Thomas P. “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001.” Bureau of Justice.



McVay, Doug, Vincent Shiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg. “National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment.” Justice Policy.



“Violent Crime.” FBI. August 25, 2017. Accessed March 27, 2018.



Sawyer, Wendy, and Emily Widra. “Findings from Harris County: Money Bail Undermines Criminal Justice Goals.” Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed March 27, 2018.



Arnold, David, Will Dobbie, and Crystal S. Wang. “Racial Bias in Bail Decisions.” Princeton University.

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